Sunday, August 28, 2011


Last night was our beginning of the year department party. Not much to report on from the party itself--other than the Christmas party last year, all department gatherings I've attended here in Pittsburgh have been fairly tame compared to those in Corvallis--but I've got an interesting story from the trip home.

I was taking the bus to and from the party, and as I walked up to the stop after the party had finished, I noticed a young kid whose age I put at 18 +/- a year. I took out my phone to check the time and was startled when a man addressed me. I hadn't seen him there, so it was something of a shock. He immediately went into a spiel about how every time he tried to talk to someone they backed away from him, which, if he was sneaking up on people like he snuck up on me, I can see why. Anyway, the man proceeded to say he was from a town about 35 miles away and his car was out of gas a few blocks away. He said he needed help, and he went out of his way to emphasize that he didn't want to seem threatening and would stand as far away from us (by this time the young kid had drifted over to the conversation) as we wanted, etc., etc. The young kid asked what sort of help the man needed, and he said that he needed gas, but as his car wouldn't go and he was a few blocks from the gas station, he needed to use a can. The gas station would give him a gas can for a five dollar deposit, but he had no cash with him.

Now, at this point I thought that there was every possibility he was telling me a tale. I've been hit up for money by any number of homeless, by meth addicts on the Greyhound between Portland and Eugene, by all sorts of types. I couldn't deny, though, that there was something of a real desperation to his words and his look, and, for whatever reason, I decided to help him out. I knew that I did have a five dollar bill in my wallet, so I took it out and told him that he could use it for the deposit. The man was very thankful, told me how God was looking down on me and would bless me for this, etc. I tried to shrug it off and told him that I hoped his night would turn out for the better. I was a little embarrassed by his enthusiastic thanks. I didn't think I'd done anything particularly noteworthy or worthwhile. He seemed like he really needed some help, and I could help him, so I did. The young kid made a kind of lame excuse that was more awkward than if he'd just said "no, I won't help you."

As the man walked away, the young kid turned to me and said "You know that was total bullshit, right?" Now, for whatever reason, I was really infuriated by the kid saying that to me. He's right, the man may have been making everything up and I'm just the sucker who fell for his story. I don't think that was the case, but it could have been, so why get angry? I'm not sure, but I did get angry. I turned to the kid said "You don't know anything about that man. He could very well be telling the truth about everything. He sounded like he needed help. So please, just shut up." Not me at my most eloquent, perhaps, but I've been lost in cities before, and I've spent a few hours wandering around streets trying to get some help from people who didn't want anything to do with me. And I had it easy: I'm a relatively non-threatening white male. I imagine that a strange black man whose car has broken down in a residential neighbourhood finds it quite a bit more difficult to get help.

The kid and I chatted for a bit as we waited for the bus. It turns out he's just started at Pitt. A freshman in Criminology. I wonder if assuming the worst about people is an advantage in that field. He didn't know what stop to get off at, so I told him. A few minutes later, a woman walked by and asked if we were waiting for the bus. When we said yes, she told us to move up to the next stop, because the bus tended to drive past the one we were standing at. I said thank you and we walked on. I hope the kid appreciated how many people were willing to help him.

I can't really say why it bothered me so much, but I'm still upset by the kid's comment this morning. Maybe I only helped that guy out of a residual feeling of guilt from all the times I've walked by homeless people and have legitimately not had any change to give to them. Of course, I'm always wondering in those situations if I would give them something if I had any to give. Maybe I was just in a good mood from a party and felt like spreading some cheer. I don't know. I'm not one to make big speeches about altruism and loving one another, nor am I one to appeal to any of kind of religious motivation for my actions, but it does seem like a pretty good idea to help people if you can. I could help that man, so I did. Could I have used that five dollars? You bet. I haven't been paid in three months. Will I starve for not having it? No. And ultimately, if I wasn't going to starve, it seemed as good a use as any I could have put it to for that five dollars to go toward getting that man home to his family.

Saturday, August 27, 2011


One downside I've noticed to the return of school and the deluge of freshmen: many young men and women have decided that wearing their workout clothes as daily attire poses no problems whatsoever. With the amount of skin and spandex I'm seeing (particularly the amount of skin my female students are showing in my class), I'm uncomfortably reminded of this passage from "Getting Away From Pretty Much Being Away From it All":
"...there is, I'm afraid, a frank sexuality that begins to get uncomfortable. You can already see some of the sixteen-year-olds out under the basketball hoop doing little warm-up twirls and splits, and they're disturbing enough to make me wish there was a copy of the state's criminal statutes handy and prominent."
I must be getting older because a) my first thought is always to accost these young women with the question "Does your mother know you're dressed like that?" and b) all my students look so young to me that any display of sexuality on their parts does seem, well . . . uncomfortable. Like something I should not be privy to (or something I might be in trouble for being privy to). A friend mentioned that it's "Freshman Mating Season" at the school where she teaches, but my students, I'm convinced, are too young to have any part of that--even if they seem very desperately to want to have one.

I realize that this makes me sound totally uncool and kind of like an unenlightened misogynist who wants to dictate what is appropriate for females to wear and to control their sexuality, etc., etc. I've got no real response to any of those charges. I guess I just find it hard to teach when I'm wondering if I might get arrested for the amount of cleavage on display in the first row.

Wednesday, August 24, 2011


Well, school has started once again. The campus is humming and buzzing with activity now. It almost defies belief to remember how quiet it was on campus at the end of summer when you come face-to-face with the hordes of freshmen barreling down on you from one direction or another.

Teaching at 8 am is more of adventure this time than it was in Corvallis. Of course, there I lived about a ten minute walk from the building I taught in. Here, it's a half hour bus ride (assuming no traffic and few stops). My students are, predictably, sleepy and, equally predictably, tentative. Any statement I make seems to be greeted with outright terror by half of the class at this point. The first couple days are the worst, of course, but they don't know that fact yet. Starting with Friday's class, our first chance to really discuss a reading that isn't a fairly abstract introduction to the concept of "college writing,"* I think what I've set out for them to do over the next fifteen weeks will seem much less daunting. I've tried to a spend a great deal of time situating our entire class within the abstract concepts we've been discussing so far (which accounts for some of the terror: they're encountering the entire course as some type of monolithic mountain and they think I'm asking them to climb it in one fell swoop, rather than knowing that we might not get to that mountain at all this term and are instead going to spend a great deal of time practicing our techniques on relatively flat ground and small hills) under the assumption that an understanding of the larger structure of the course will make each individual day seem more useful and meaningful. If they can understand the end goal and what it entails, they'll probably be able to understand why we're doing the particular task we're focused on that class. I understand this is probably not the case, but I figured it was a worthwhile experiment.

A more interesting experiment, and one I might start conducting over the remaining semesters I'm teaching here, suggested itself to me after I received some of the first day surveys I handed out to my students. These are meant to supplement whatever introductions we do in class on the first day and to provide more in-depth data on their attitudes towards writing, their ability to self-assess and accurately diagnose what works and what doesn't in their writing, their level of comfort with the class, etc., etc. One of the questions--and the purpose of this question is simply to gain some information that will allow the student to stand out in my mind and make learning names a quicker and easier process (I've got about 2/3 of them down after two classes)--is "What is the most interesting thing about you?"**

This is a fairly bland question, I'll grant that, but it amazes me how little information it generates. I can understand that students may not be comfortable sharing personal information out loud in class on the first day, and I give them the option not to answer that question during their introduction if it will make them uncomfortable (I've noticed that a tendency to answer the question seems to correlate pretty well with the student's level of participation throughout the semester). I have assumed, though, and maybe this is where I'm going wrong, that students would feel far more comfortable answering the question in the "privacy" of the survey. I'm the only person who sees these surveys. I will never bring up any information a student shares with me on the survey with the class or with another student unless it is information that the student has already volunteered in class him or herself. Nevertheless, every semester I get answers of the "I like to run" or "I have a dog" variety. Sometimes students have information that could be interesting and useful, like the always popular "I like to travel," but unless they attach specifics to their fact--"I like to travel and have visited four continents," for example--it remains largely useless. These questions might have inspired Barthes to write Writing Degree Zero they're so flat and colourless and neutral. It's almost impossible for students to offer information that says less about themselves.

I was complaining about this fact today on Facebook and Twitter (tongue firmly in cheek; I was asked to do this same activity the other night and my mind went totally blank--although, this was partly due to the fact that I have few interests outside of my academic interests that I can state without the need to burden them with thousands of qualifiers and clarifications). I had a thought, though: are students reluctant to provide actual information, or are they incapable of providing the kind of information I'm seeking? If it's the former, does this reluctance have something to do with privacy concerns or their overall comfort level? Is it too difficult or uncomfortable or scary to share information about one's self with a person who is, essentially, a complete stranger and who one assumes will be judging one's self throughout the coming fifteen weeks? If it's the latter, is this inability the result of currently unrefined skills (i.e. students can't write about themselves because they don't yet understand how to write effectively)? Is it due to a misunderstanding (or incomprehension) of what the terms "interesting" or "unique" mean? Or, and this bridges the two sides, does this have something to do with a culture that tells young people that they are all unique in the same way? Is this related to the rise of social networking and lure of appealing to a group by demonstrating you think the same/feel the same/like the same/desire the same (conveniently symbolized and actualized at the same time by the Facebook "Like" button)?***

Another issue that emerged from the first batch of surveys I received today (I'll get the rest on Friday) has to do with students' expectations and attitudes toward writing. When I first started giving this survey (which was not that long ago), the majority of students' answers to "What is the best experience you've ever had with writing? The worst?" usually involved an anecdote about working hard on a project in high school (quite often a "senior research paper" or similar assignment) and receiving a high grade. Sometimes they would mention winning a contest or publication of some of their work. Their worst experiences also tended to relate to unpleasant high school projects, most of which had been left to the last minute and that the students felt reflected poorly on them.

While there's an obvious connection between good experience and rewards in those anecdotes, the anecdotes themselves have been simplifying over the past few semesters to become "I worked hard on a paper and got an A (or some equivalent, like 100%) on it." Today's batch of surveys featured the most blunt statement of this kind of attitude yet. To paraphrase: "The best experience was every time I got an A on an assignment. The worst was every time I didn't get an A." It is tremendously difficult to get students to see the value in work that they're doing in this class (and in other classes, I would imagine) when they tie success/good writing experience solely to the grade they receive. Similarly, it becomes even more difficult when they assume that effort (regardless of whether or not that effort is directed in fruitful ways or produces work of any quality) must always be rewarded with an A. Thus, for the student, effort is only rewarded if the piece of writing is successful, and a piece of writing is only successful it receives an A.

I disagree pretty fundamentally with both of those statements, largely because lots of writing that students put plenty of effort into is "unsuccessful" by this measure, but is "successful" in more important ways. I'm obviously not stating anything revolutionary here. Unfortunately, the above attitude seems to be becoming the hegemonic student orientation toward not just writing, but university (and education as a whole) in general. I'm not even lamenting for the decline in the "I love learning for the sake of learning" types--frankly, I think their numbers have probably always been drastically overstated. What I am lamenting is the decline in estimation of honing a craft among students, of putting into practice new skills, regardless of whether or not the end result is "exceptional" or "superior" or any of the other terms I (and others) use to describe A work. I'm not sure I even understand how to communicate this to students, though, without them thinking it's only a tired version of "hard work is its own reward" (which it is, but it's so much more than just that).

Anyway, some thoughts on teaching and students after a couple of days back at it. I have no answers to any of the questions I've asked, which I'm guessing is actually something of a good thing, for the most part. I imagine that it's beneficial to have these issues as live questions while I think about teaching and plan my lessons each day.

To lighten the mood some: keep watching this and this. They both just get funnier and funnier.

*As a term, "college writing" causes me no end of cognitive dissonance: to my mind, the term to describe our class should be "university writing," as, thanks to the differences between Canadian and American applications of the term, colleges and universities are quite different things. While there is nothing wrong with colleges in Canada--indeed, they are far better than universities for certain kinds of programs and disciplines--I have a certain residual snobbery attached to the connotations of the term because in high school designating a course as "college" signified that it was less difficult than those courses designated as "university." Perhaps an all around less problematic term would be "academic writing?"

**They also had trouble providing an kind of useful information (in the sense of information that provides any insight into the student's character or motivations) with the question "What is, or what do you expect will be, your major and why are you interested in this field?" Though every student in my class has a declared major, only one could offer any sort of explanation for their interest in their chosen field. I'm not sure I could have articulated any kind of fluid or coherent narrative about my interest in English when I started my undergrad, but I think I could have done better than what my students offered.

***In deliberately crafting their responses to appeal to this communal uniqueness, perhaps the students engage in literary craftsmanship (as Barthes describes it here):
"if not the reconciliation of the writer to a universal condition, at least the conferment upon him of the responsibility for his form, the transmutation of the writing handed down to him by History into an art; in other words, into an obvious convention, a sincere pact which would enable man to adopt a position he was familiar with in a nature still made of ill-matched realities. The writer then gives to society a self-confessed art, whose rules are visible to all, and in exchange society is able to accept the writer."

Monday, August 22, 2011


A few random thoughts on the eve of the start of a new semester.

Two song titles that make me chuckle every time I see them:
"Stupid Prick Gets Chased by the Police and Loses His Slut Girlfriend" by Mogwai and "Eat My Dust You Insensitive Fuck" by Catherine Wheel. Of course, it helps that both are actually great songs beyond having punchlines for titles: the Mogwai song is, fitting its origin, really quite tense and filmic and the Catherine Wheel song, thanks to Tim Friese-Greene's always stellar production work, features the same amazing harmonica sound found on those later Talk Talk albums.

Speaking of said harmonica sound: "The Rainbow" by Talk Talk. The way that note just builds and then explodes from 7:04-7:16 is just wonderful. I'd say it sounds like a rainbow, but it's a little too violent and unhinged (not that I'm complaining). Also, wow, the guitar that comes in at the start. He must be hitting the strings really hard because it sounds way out, but it works so well with the piano. It really is astounding that the same band that wrote this (which is also a great song) made Spirit of Eden and Laughing Stock (twenty years old this year!). Both albums have a pretty sterling critical reputation these days, but they deserve more actual listening than I'm sure they get. I know I'm guilty of letting them sit for criminally long times without a spin. As albums they're so intense, though, that it's difficult to do anything else but let them wash over you--there's no fading into the background, especially not with Mark Hollis' voice coming out of the speakers at you.

I'd been hearing a bit about The Weeknd when they released their first album, but I wasn't really in the mood to check out an R&B band from Toronto. With the release of their second album of the year, Thursday, this past Thursday, though, I figured it couldn't hurt to see what they're about. After listening to Thursday, I have to say that I'm impressed: it sounds great, sort of halfway between Brainfeeder and mainstream pop. It reminds me of Massive Attack (pre-Mezzanine, maybe during the Protection era) and early Tricky (circa Maxinquaye) in a lot of ways. I didn't pay enough attention to the lyrics to pick up on the tales of debauchery that supposedly make up all the lyrics, but I can see this being just sort of noirish and outre enough to score a more "sophisticated" night out for a lot of people (kind of like Portishead when Dummy came out--actually, "Cowboys" from Portishead isn't a terrible touchstone for The Weeknd's sound, to a certain extent). The way that the voice is used isn't quite as arresting as Gonjasufi, but the vocals really do grab your attention. I'm interested to see what album #3 in this trilogy will sound like.

A great companion to The Weeknd that came out on Brainfeeder recently is Shlohmo's Bad Vibes. It's less indebted to IDM and jazz than Flying Lotus, so it's able to feel much more like a kind of malfunctioning, robotic R&B, but it retains the kind of glassy, airy tones that made Teebs' album Ardour so great and that Four Tet regularly transforms into moments of great beauty. There are some Burial-style disembodied voices that creep up and moan like ghosts in the background, but they're handled well and aren't really much of a distraction. It would be nice to hear what Shlohmo could do with some real vocals, though. Actually, lately I've been really wishing that Bjork would hook up with the Brainfeeder roster. Just the thought makes me sort of dizzy. Or maybe if Laura Darlington could guest on a few of Shlohmo's tracks the results might be as impressive as her turns at the mic on Flying Lotus' last two albums.

Thursday, August 18, 2011


I read Paul Auster's New York Trilogy over the summer (how strange that I only refer to summer in the past tense now when the equinox has yet to happen--it's still over a month away), and I'd meant to write about the books sooner, before they'd faded from my mind. I suppose it's better this way, though, or at least in keeping with the feel of the books. I often found myself left wanting more when I finished each individual book in the trilogy; something about them seemed empty and hollow. In the moment of reading, though, I felt satisfied. They are strange books, and they move sort of like nightmares. Everything feels just slightly off, and when you try and move your thoughts around the plot and characters, you can't quite move toward anything definite. Just like in a nightmare, no matter how hard you try to run, you just stand still. And then it's over; you're out and awake and the story has finished without anything wrapping up in any clear way.

There are times that passages catch my eye while I'm reading and they will sort of haunt me. I won't be able to decide if what the passage says is true or not, and the words sort of hammer away in my subconscious, waiting to jump out at me. The final book in the trilogy, The Locked Room, had a couple of such passages. The first reminds me of my favourite lines from Ulysses, which hang above my desk: "Every life is many days, day after day. We walk through ourselves, meeting robbers, ghosts, giants, old men, young men, wives, widows, brothers-in-love. But always meeting ourselves" (doing a quick Google search on this passage, it turns out that it is quite popular in general. I didn't know that. It certainly isn't a passage that our attention was drawn to in the Joyce class I took). In Auster's novel:
Every life is inexplicable, I kept telling myself. No matter how many facts are told, no matter how many details are given, the essential thing resists telling. To say that so and so was born here and went there, that he did this and did that, that he married this woman and had these children, that he lived, that he died, that he left behind these books or this battle or that bridge--none of that tells us very much. We all want to be told stories, and we listen to them in the same way we did when we were young. We imagine the real story inside the words, and to do this we substitute ourselves for the person in the story, pretending that we can understand him because we understand ourselves. This is a deception. We exist for ourselves, perhaps, and at times we even have a glimmer of who we are, but in the end we can never be sure, and as our lives go on, we become more and more opaque to ourselves, more and more aware of our own incoherence. No one can cross the boundary into another--for the simple reason that no can gain access to himself.
 On the surface, this seems sort of diametrically opposed to Stephen Daedalus' words (though Stephen does go on to disclaim any belief in the truth of his own words). For the narrator of The Locked Room, we cannot meet ourselves in others because we cannot meet our self. We are unknowable, and even the stories we can tell about ourselves, the tangible evidence of our existence, gives us no insight into who or what we are. I'm not sure how I feel about that line of thought. It would be easy for me to say I disagree, but I'm not sure where I would attack any of the narrator's claims. Similarly, it would be easy for me to say I agree, but I'm not sure where I'd go about finding any support for the claims. It's sort of an anti-Delphic moment: you can never know thyself. I wonder how this might all fit into a Lacanian/Zizekian sense of the Other and the Other's unknowability. Can you render the self as the Other?

What really interests me about that Auster passage, though (beyond the weird echo of Joyce), is that I remember a similar kind of comment kicking off my interest in representations of professors in literature. I'm not usually very good at reconstructing thoughts and how I came to an idea after the fact (once an idea is there, it becomes difficult to remember it as not always having been there), but I can remember the genesis of this one fairly clearly. A group of graduate students were sitting in a conference room listening to a fairly prominent academic talk about his work. After some prodding, he began to relate the narrative of his career (i.e. where he went to school, where he got his first job, how long he stayed there, when he moved to his next job, etc., etc.). When he'd finished--and after someone asked him if he could give us, the graduate students desperate for advice, some sort of hint or clue about what to do with our professional lives based on his own narrative--he said that he couldn't really gives us any advice because that narrative he'd told us had nothing really to do with his life and work. His only piece of advice was to follow our work and ideas.

I remember thinking after he'd said that "I wonder how many professors would say that, even though their lives/careers/work might fit into very tidy and conventional narratives, those narratives bear no relation to their actual lives/careers/work." I'm guessing, and I guessed then, that the number is probably quite a bit higher than just the man who sat in that conference room with us that day. I'm also guessing that regardless of that opinion, any number of outside observes will continue to think of those academics' lives/careers/work in terms of those conventional narratives. So, my next thought--the one I'd like to explore further--was: what are those narratives? There are a whole host of sub-questions beyond that now, but that was my first thought that day. I scribbled some of this down on a sheet of paper and if I looked hard enough through various boxes of notes, I'd bet I could find that paper now.

Well, this post was originally going to be about something much different. I guess, after hours of in-service today and meeting new people and explaining my interests to them and all that I'm in something of a reflective mood. I guess I'll return to Auster (whose name I can't help but say in my head as Auster-D because of a presentation on City of Glass before I'd ever read the book).

Wednesday, August 17, 2011


This is not the long-promised post on chillwave and hauntology (which at this point looks like it's never going to happen, let's be honest). It is a start, though.

I'm a latecomer to the hauntology party (indeed, at this point it's almost passe--although, Simon Reynolds doesn't think so: "There are those who say that hauntology’s moment has passed… that a good five or six years after the genre-not-genre coalesced, its set of reference points and sonic tropes has been worn threadbare."), but it seemed to fit in really well with something I'd been thinking about for awhile w/r/t chillwave: namely, that its callback to the past (in this case, the 1980s) was not simply an attempt to "redo" or "reclaim" those sounds, but to wrestle with the future projected by that era (the Reagan years).

As Mark Fisher points out, hauntology is, in many respects, the flipside of capitalist realism. That is, if capitalist realism works to foreclose our imaginative possibilities, to describe capitalism as our absolute, untranscendable mental horizon, to make any other system of economic, political, and social organization literally unthinkable, hauntology appears as what is already part of our imaginations: the future as described by the past. All those (not) forgotten ideas and visions and dreams about what the future will be; ghosts that haunt our present moment, shadowing everything, visible out of the corner of the eye, audible in silences and bursts of noise that cloak and mask our daily lives. It's not surprising that many of those past-futures that haunt us are fairly utopian in scope: jet cars, hoverboards, fins on everything, crystal cities, colonies on the moon, extrasystem space exploration, etc., etc. All the things we were promised, all the things that unbeatable optimism in the continued growth and improvement of our lives under capitalism made seem palpably real, tangible, but just beyond our grasp for the moment.

In his short story "The Gernsback Continuum," from the seminal Mirrorshades: The Cyberpunk Anthology, William Gibson's narrator suddenly sees that past-future in the present. It becomes his reality. As his conspiracy theorist friend Merv Kihn tells him in an attempt to reassure him that he's not crazy, he's haunted by
"semiotic phantoms, bits of deep cultural imagery that have split off and taken on a life of their own . . . you saw a different kind of ghost, that's all. That plane [the narrator has seen a ghostly luxury airliner that was planned but never developed in the 1930s] was part of the mass unconscious, once. You picked up on that, somehow."
After his conversation with Kihn, the narrator has a second, more intense vision of the past-future:
I looked behind me and saw the city.
The books on Thirties design were in the trunk; one of them contained sketches of an idealized city that drew on Metropolis and Things to Come, but squared everything, soaring up through an architect's perfect clouds to zeppelin docks and mad neon spires. That city was a scale model of the one that rose behind me. Spire stood on spire in gleaming ziggurat steps that climbed to a central golden temple tower ringed with the crazy radiator flanges of the Mongo gas stations. You could hide the Empire State Building in the smallest of those towers. Roads of crystal soared between the spires, crossed and recrossed by smooth silver shapes like beads of running mercury. The air was thick with ships: giant wing-liners, little darting silver things (sometimes one of the quicksilver shapes from the sky bridges rose gracefully into the air and flew up to join the dance), mile-long blimps, hovering dragonfly things that were gyrocopters. . .
Where before the past-future could be glimpsed out of the corner of the eye (those Mongo gas stations with pumps shaped like "raygun emplacements" and "superfluous central towers ringed with those strange radiator flanges that . . . made them look as though they might generate potent bursts of raw technological enthusiasm" and which, even in the story, are disappearing) now it takes over the landscape, replacing the California of the late 1970s/early 1980s, the built up American boomtown of the post-WWII era. There's something quaint in the narrator's vision (what we would now call a certain sense of retrofuturism), a childlike quality in its spires and silver beads that's miles away from Oedpia Maas' circuit board waiting to be plugged into. What's more, the narrator encounters the inhabitants of this past-future city:
They were the children of Dialta Downes's '80s-that-wasn't; they were the Heirs to the Dream. They were white, blond, and they probably had blue eyes. They were American.* Dialta had said that the Future had come to America first, but had finally passed it by. But not here, in the heart of the Dream. Here, we'd gone on and on, in a dream logic that knew nothing of pollution, the finite bounds of fossil fuel, of foreign wars it was possible to lose. They were smug, happy, and utterly content with themselves and their world. And in the Dream, it was their world.
In the end, the narrator manages to escape the past-future--the Dream that claims our world as its own and which we can only ever be haunted by, never participate in--by watching television, forcing the past-future to become, once again, "peripheral." Of course, this is no accident: in the early '80s, with the rise of networks like MTV, the US was busy exporting a new dream of the future to its citizens, the Reaganaut vision of the US as the sole hegemonic force in the world, the (hopefully) triumphant destroyer of the "evil empire," the force working to enact, not just locally but globally [an ironic "think global, act local" before its time?], capitalist realism.

The connection with television is vital here. For many chillwave bands, old television shows, old videotapes, and old video games are cited as influences as often as any musicians (in this, the coining of the term "chillwave" as a generic tag, Carles of Hipster Runoff lists one of the genre's defining criteria as "sound[ing] like something that was playing in the background of 'an old VHS cassette that u found in ur attic from the late 80s/early 90s'"). Those old media artifacts often surpass supplementing memories of the era; they are the memories of the era. If your memory of your childhood is a memory of the pieces of culture that exported the dream future America was going to enjoy (and that you, luck you, were someday going to live in), there are some pretty powerful semiotic phantoms that are going to shadow everyday life.

Mining these old cultural artifacts for inspiration and glimpse into lost futures is hardly new, though. Boards of Canada tipped off a major source of inspiration in their name, and artists on the Ghost Box record label like Belbury Poly, The Advisory Circle, and The Focus Group have cited old films and television shows as influences (particularly the work of BBC Radiophonics Workshop in soundtracking many of those shows and films). Nitsuh Abebe, in an excellent article for Pitchfork earlier this year, pointed out that the core elements of "chillwave" have essentially been about in indie music for almost two decades at this point. Indeed, that article has an excellent companion piece, so to speak, in a largely forgotten and underappreciated (it seems to me at any rate) article that Abebe wrote about the rise of post-rock in the UK in the 1990s, "The Lost Generation: How UK Post-Rock Fell in Love With the Moon (And a Bunch of Bands Nobody Listened to Defined the 1990s)".** Many of Abebe's description of the sound of the Lost Generation bands describes chillwave bands fairly well. Seeing Neon Indian live, My Bloody Valentine seemed like their biggest influence. Stereolab is perhaps too polished and refined for chillwave, their retrofuturism pointed to the 1950s and early 1960s, but they don't sound too far off at times. And speaking of My Bloody Valentine, Kevin Shields seemed to have the chillwave sound figured out back in 2003 (one of my favourite pieces of music in the world, right there).

So, the real questions, then: what makes chillwave different? Why now? What's its connection to hauntology (which seems to be a British thing, by and large)? To make a stab at answering them in reverse order: I think chillwave is a specifically (or, perhaps more appropriately uniquely) American form of hauntology, one that reflects the country's different relationship to capitalism and capitalist realism. It's happening now because a generation raised on a particular dream-future promised to it by capitalism/capitalist realism has come of age and seen that future entirely fail to come about (a failure confirmed by the 2008 financial crisis). In response, the summer, the golden California boom and its utopian vision, can only be endlessly gestured toward. Steps in this direction had already been taken by other artists (esp. Christian Fennesz on his 2001 album, Endless Summer), a point made by Mark Richardson here, but it's crystallized now because the music works well "for being alone in a room with only a computer to keep you company." Indeed, Fennesz might have been ahead of the cultural landscape of indie rock when he released that album. The past two years have seen an explosion of music about and dedicated to the idea of an endless summer. Bands like Girls, Wavves, and Best Coast have exported a new version of California sun-drenched pop. Chillwave bands have extolled the virtues of being chill, bro, and taking in those endless summer days. Suddenly, everyone seemed to be singing about summer, about the beach, about long days and long nights and the pleasure of it all.

As for the final question, what makes chillwave different? Well, a lot I think. Much of the hauntological music that people like Fisher and Reynolds triumph (the releases on the Ghost Box record label, for example, or the music of Boards of Canada) are rural, arcadian-sounding releases. The lost futures exist “In a Beautiful Place Out In the Country” (when the artists take an urban term, like Burial, for example, it is a decaying, destroyed urban landscape inhabited by those very ghosts that live in the past-future). For chillwave, though, as an American expression, the landscape is the beach, the endless summer that takes place at the edge of the American Dream. In his article on "Hauntology, spectres and phantoms," Colin Davis refers to the work of Nicholas Abraham and Maria Torok, who were:
interested in transgenerational communication, particularly the way in which the undisclosed traumas of previous generations might disturb the lives of their descendants even and especially if they know nothing about their distant causes. What they call a phantom is the presence of a dead ancestor in the living Ego, still intent on preventing its traumatic and usually shameful secrets from coming to light. One crucial consequence of this is that the phantom does not, as it does in some versions of the ghost story, return from the dead in order to reveal something hidden or forgotten, to right a wrong or to deliver a message that might otherwise have gone unheeded. On the contrary, the phantom is a liar; its effects are designed to mislead the haunted subject and to ensure that its secret remains shrouded in mystery.
In this case, that lying phantom is the golden capitalist dream of the 80s, its secret and traumatic shame being its impossibility. Indeed, so much of chillwave, lyrically, deals with loss, with missed opportunities, with longings that can't quite be realized, and projects a kind of empty hedonism or pleasure seeking in an attempt to fill the void caused by those unrealized longings. And, in a kind of existential dread that seems almost absent from British hauntology (or at least, hauntology seems to encounter different types of existential dread), the reclaimed dream, the relived past-future in chillwave is not comforting or melancholy, but threatening. Even as the endless summer beckons, though, it ends. What’s left is always receding from our grasp. Or at least it should. With the proliferation of chillwave bands, summer doesn't seem to be ending. As Ian Cohen jokingly pointed out earlier this year, "I never realized that the idea of an 'endless summer' could actually be something of a sinister threat rather than a dream scenario." What happens when the dream takes over, as in "The Gernsback Continuum?" Do we look to TV for a new dream to disappear into? Or is this one of the points that Mark Fisher made in Capitalist Realism: "Capitalist realism can only be threatened if it is shown to be in some way inconsistent or untenable; if, that is to say, capitalism's ostensible 'realism' turns out to be nothing of the sort." When our dream of endless summer turns into a nightmare summer that won't end, that won't offer any relief, is that the moment in which we can start to dream about escaping?

Alright, so like I said, it's a start. If you've stuck with me this long, I'd really appreciate some feedback on this: I really think this needs to be pushed in a number of different directions. If anyone is interested in a link dump/source sharing, I'll post up all my bookmarks on hauntology and chillwave.

*I'd be interested to know what people think of their curious Aryan-ism. Why is that the necessary link to their American identity?
**There's reference in that article to the fact that Simon Reynolds, one of the early adopters of the concept of hauntology and its applicability to a certain type of contemporary music, was also the coiner of the term "post-rock." That guy does get around, doesn't he?

Monday, August 15, 2011


. . . And that's the first and last reference to Eliot on this blog, I promise (if anyone finds another one, don't tell me. It'll crush me). Aren't you glad this means I won't ever make some horrible joke about April being the cruelest month?

It's been a rainy day here, though it hasn't ever really stormed hard enough to cause anyone to head for the hills or anything. Mostly, it's been drizzling on and off throughout the day. The weather and the light (it's been fairly bright in a gloomy sort of way) coupled with the giant tree outside the window I face as I work at my desk reminds me of Oregon (though it's the wrong kind of tree). Given that I've spent most of the day looking back through old assignments, lesson plans, and readings (I'm teaching some stuff this coming semester I haven't even read since the summer before I started teaching at OSU--I'd better brush up. . .), that's kind of appropriate. I've just about finished my syllabus and I've started reworking all my assignment sheets so that I can get into the office tomorrow and get all my photocopying done before the rush. It's hard to believe, but the semester starts one week from today (actually, it'll start one week from 8:00 this morning). On the one hand, I'll agree with everyone I've spoken to that this summer has flown by. On the other hand, last week and this coming week seem to be edging along so slowly. I'll be glad to get into a routine when classes start.

This coming semester will mark the start of my third year of teaching. I remember reading somewhere (an interview with someone? I honestly can't remember) that after three years the amount of learning that you do as a teacher tends to drop off dramatically (in the sense that more and more student responses to your teaching--what they like, what they don't like, what could be improved, what needs to change, what should stay the same, etc., etc.--tend to be repeats) and the general style of your teaching is fairly solidified by the end of that third year. It would be nice to think that this were the case (you mean after this year I'll stop feeling completely and hopelessly underprepared at all times and will start feeling like I know what I'm doing?), but I'm not convinced. In fact, I don't want to be convinced. I'd like to hope that I (and my students) don't have to settle into a rut from here on out to eternity (I guess it will change slightly when [if?] I start teaching courses that aren't freshman comp before reverting to monotony), mostly because I'm not convinced I'm a very good teacher yet, and I would really like to get a lot better before any rut-settling takes place.

I'll be teaching at eight in the morning this coming semester on MWF, and that means I'll be my students' first exposure to university. I'm kind of blown away by that idea: our class next Monday will literally be their first ever class in university. In some ways, I feel a lot of pressure to step up my teaching game in response to this fact. I've been going over and over what I want to say on the first day. I want to make sure that--in the words of (probably) my favourite piece of pedagogy I've ever read, Peter Elbow's "Embracing Contraries in the Teaching Process"*--"the students [I] certify really understand or can do what [I] teach, to see that the grades and credits and degrees [I] give really have the meaning or currency they are supposed to have," but I wonder if I shouldn't spend just a little extra time and energy on the other side of the process, the contrary to that "guardian" stance: "to be [my students'] all[y] . . . as [I] instruct and share: to invite all students to enter in and join [me] as members of a learning community--even if they have difficulty. . . . to assume they are all capable of learning, to see things through their eyes, to help bring out their best rather than their worst when it comes to tests and grades." I don't think I've necessarily shirked this aspect in the past--or, at least, not intentionally--but I'd like to spend a whole lot more time this semester in that ally role, rather than that guardian role. I'd like to think that I'm confident enough as a teacher now that I don't need to be a hardass to prove a point or anything like that.

And (as I suddenly see sunshine outside my window), at the very least, I think I'll be more fun than Mark Bauerlein in The Chronicle of Higher Education today: while I'm sympathetic to his claim that teaching the "classics" (but "whose classics?" is of course the inevitable question here--based on his list, pre-WWII and almost exclusively white. He might be shocked to learn that of the names he's listed, DuBois is the only one who holds any real appeal for me) is important regardless of their relevance, I can't agree with his suggestion that we shouldn't teach the "materials of mass culture" because they are "vulgar, transient, and thin" and "aren't worth the labor." I understand his point that the classics can be useful in helping to develop our students' critical thinking skills (a term I absolutely hate. I'm with Rob Jenkins: what you mean when you say critical thinking is, in fact, thinking), I mean, I teach "A Modest Proposal" and "Letter From Birmingham Jail" and all those kinds of things, and I also teach all the "nu-classics" of the modern composition classroom he decries: beer ads, music videos, television and movie clips, song lyrics. Hell, last year I taught part of Kanye West's Twitter stream. What drives me crazy is the opinion, one that the author of that article very clearly holds, that the two are mutually exclusive in terms of fostering critical approaches to texts and contemporary culture. That only through teaching "past high culture" can teachers "raise [their students'] critical thinking about contemporary mass culture."

There is an absolute wealth of great contemporary mass culture that trains its viewers/readers/listeners/participants to think critically about that mass culture. There's definite value in having students work their way through a difficult text in order to come to an awareness of a method of cultural critique (or simply to explore another viewpoint), but there's nothing that says "easy" texts like television shows can't do an equally effective job (other than that author's opinion that they can't because they're not as "rich" or "worthwhile" or "lasting" or whatever terms he wants to contrast with "thin, vulgar, and transient"). In fact, he stakes his claim around this idea of teaching classics regardless of their "relevance," but I think it's actually something of a red herring: I don't teach the materials of contemporary mass culture because I think they're so much more relevant than the classics, I teach them because I honestly think they're more effective at helping students to learn and develop certain skills.

He goes on to suggest (in shockingly violent language that casts critical reading/viewing/listening skills and cultural literacy as analogous to a physical confrontation) that these mass culture materials are not effective because: "A few days with images taken from great photography and film will equip them to 'read' music videos much more effectively than will a few days with those videos themselves" and "The language of Romantic poetry exercises critical thinking about language better than does the language of billboard jingles." While both of the "high culture" elements he mentions here have value (and it's fun to expose students to those things, particularly if they've never had access [or even known they could have access] to those things before), he does nothing to actually establish that those claims are true, he simply holds it to be so. Indeed, he's as negative towards contemporary mass culture as Adorno at his worst, an elitist who does nothing to hide his elitism and is deaf to any other viewpoints because, bottom line, he holds contemporary mass culture to be incapable of producing anything that could be challenging, that could disrupt students' "saturation with media." While that's certainly true for aspects of contemporary mass culture, it's by no means true of it all (to offer an easy example [this is, like, low-hanging fruit here]: Arrested Development and the idea of intertextuality--I have seen in the past few months no fewer than four separate references to AD as the standard for an illustration of that concept; to offer another: The Daily Show/Colbert Report and their increasingly naked pedagogical/didactic approach to the consumption of media).

Students are saturated with the present and their own cultural moment, I'll agree with that, but that's no reason to turn away from teaching that material in favour of texts that one loudly and triumphantly proclaims to hold no relevance (is there anything that will drive students away from those classics faster?). Connect the two, the classic and the material of contemporary mass culture, and watch the lovely things that happen.

[EDIT: A former professor might have had the best response to the article: "Wow--who knew Matthew Arnold wrote for The Chronicle?"]

Anyway, enough of that for now. I'm betting chances are good that if you're reading this blog, you're probably fairly sympathetic to the quality and worthiness of contemporary mass culture. Speaking of which, one more worthy example of it before I go: in keeping with my Mogwai appreciation from last night, I thought I'd offer up this live version of "2 Rights Make 1 Wrong." I'd long heard about what a transcendent live act Mogwai are, but I mostly assumed it had to do with sheer volume and their approach to their louder songs. This version of "2 Rights," though, from their live album Special Moves, is as heart-stoppingly beautiful as the album version. I can only imagine what it's like to experience it in person.

*No link for you on that one, unfortunately. It's on JSTOR if you have access, in College English 45.4 (1983): 327-39. I should say, also, that I haven't read all that much pedagogy, if my choice of favourite insults your sensibilities.

Sunday, August 14, 2011


I thought, for just a minute, I'd get back to what I started this blog to do: write about music. There's been a lot of good music released this summer (and I've found a few albums from the past few years that aren't too shabby), which means I've spent even more time than usual listening to music (I'm not complaining).

One album to which I keep returning (and that has actually surprised me with how much I've genuinely enjoyed it) is Mogwai's Hardcore Will Never Die, But You Will (always a way with titles, those Scottish lads). Now, any time Mogwai releases an album I'm expecting to love it (I have loved [more or less] everything they've released since I first got my grubby little hands on an import copy of Young Team for $40 [!!!] in grade nine), but I have to admit I've been waiting for a change from them. Their last album, The Hawk Is Howling, had bits of everything they do well (and opener "I'm Jim Morrison, I'm Dead," despite the comma splice, is top five [at least] material for them), but it also seemed a lot like the album before that, Mr. Beast, which seemed a lot like the album before that, Happy Songs for Happy People, which was itself a slight evolution from its predecessor, Rock Action. Given that Rock Action came out in 1999, it was starting to seem a little tired, especially when the major stylistic "advances" were "Glasgow Mega Snake" and "Batcat." While I enjoy both songs (though the former is far superior), they also one-dimensional compared to earlier volume workouts. Indeed, outside of "I'm Jim Morrison..." the songs I'd started to pay the most attention to on Mogwai albums were relatively minor numbers (and I don't just mean key here) like "Local Authority" and "Kings Meadow," which seemed to follow on from songs on Mr. Beast like "Acid Food," "Team Handed," and "Emergency Trap," smaller scale, pretty and mournful. Indeed, where Mr. Beast's second half had been full of these kinds of treasures, The Hawk Is Howling closed with four of its longest tracks, none of which are particularly interesting (though "Thank You Space Expert" is pleasant enough). That seemed to be their limit these days, working in the background of my commute: the kind of music that sounds great while looking out the window of a bus because it's scaled to that size. The longer songs felt hollow, blustery, cold somehow, largely affectless.

I remember a comment from Rob Mitchum's review of Sonic Youth's Murray Street: "Journalistic integrity aside, it gives me great pleasure to be able to like a new Sonic Youth album without having to force it, and to finally give their back catalog a nice, long rest." This is how I feel about Mogwai's latest. I didn't expect to feel this way, though. When I heard that Mogwai had a new album coming out, I have to admit that my first emotion was not excitement, but dread at having to force my way through it, at having to like songs that did nothing for me. The first taste of Hardcore, "Rano Pano," was encouraging in its disorienting sound (I know it's a loud song, but nothing about it seems all that loud or heavy), and the edit of "How to Be a Werewolf" that came out soon after was even better. I was nervous when I saw some of the negative reviews long time fans were giving to it ("Mexican Grand Prix" and "George Square Thatcher Death Party" in particular), but given that the criticism was directed at how "not-Mogwai" those songs sounded, I was intrigued. To be sure, The Hawk Is Howling had its "not Mogwai" song, "The Sun Smells Too Loud," but it was the worst thing on the album, a song I like to pretend the band never wrote. Imagine my surprise, then, when I put the album on for the first time and liked it. I mean, genuinely and truly, without any reservations, liked it. There are a few songs I could do without, ("White Noise," "Death Rays" [the latter a fan favourite for some reason?]) and they've yet to grow on me, but the rest of it is so much fun. I didn't think it was possible for Mogwai to surprise me like this anymore.

I love the momentum of "Mexican Grand Prix," and it might have the best vocals ever featured on Mogwai song. The "minor" songs on the album, "Letters to the Metro" and "Too Raging to Cheers" are wonderfully evocative, with the slide guitar on the former calling to mind Earth circa Hex: Or Printing in the Infernal Method, and the violin on the latter expanding the band's emotional range quite a bit. Earth returns as a reference point on the closer "You're Lionel Richie," a song as patient and obvious as "Miami Morning Coming Down," and just as lovely. It's also the first "epic" in the tradition of "Like Herod," "Mogwai Fear Satan," "Christmas Steps," "My Father My King," etc., to interest me since "My Father My King." The sample at the start is as wonderful as the one at the start of "Yes! I Am a Long Way From Home." The largely unaccompanied guitar bit from about 2:06 to 3:46 is surprisingly great at building tension, and that pause, oh, that pause. It might be my favourite moment in a song this year.* I wish the second half of the song would go on forever (even though I'm happy with exactly where it finishes). As for "How to Become a Werewolf," I can say that it is similar to "Yes! I Am a Long Way From Home" in the best way: it features an absolutely euphoric guitar climax that justifies those words at the start of the latter, "If someone told me Mogwai are the stars, I would not object."

They've got a new EP on the way on my birthday, and based on its first track, they're continuing their current hot streak.

*Except for the fact it comes after "How to Become a Werewolf," and the high note that Stuart hits at 4:28, which is just perfection. The music of the spheres.

Friday, August 12, 2011


This has nothing to do with any of the "serious" work I should be doing (or, rather, feel like I should be doing--that serious work being the syllabus for my class that starts in just over a week [!!], the stuff on chillwave/hauntology I've been goofing off with all summer, and my thoughts on The Pale King [which I'll have to get into shape pretty fucking sharpish, as I've asked a friend to help set up a panel on it for a conference]), but for a Friday night, what the hell, I'll let my hair down.

I was browsing the website Crackle earlier this evening, trying to find a movie I felt like watching. Crackle's selection is limited (though they have some gems, like So I Married An Axe Murderer). What I came across at the end of their selection blew my mind, however. I saw the title Wild Things* and immediately laughed. Wild Things came out when I was not quite old enough to be able to sneak into a theatre to see it, and as it was never on TV (not that I ever saw, anyway), it had something of a continued mystique (that's not quite the word I want, but I can't think of any one word to sum it up: essentially, I knew there was something vaguely licentious about the film and, coinciding as it did with my pubescence, it held something of a fascination for me as a cultural object that I both knew and not just understood but felt was predicated solely on sex; at the same time, though, I also knew it was, inevitably, not going to be that sexy, but without having that illusion shattered, the possibilty that it might just be as sexy as my fevered little imagination conspired to make it was kind of tantalizing) for some time after it had generally faded from memory (until college, really, when I realized the kind of males [and it was only males, in my experience] who owned the movie and claimed to like it). I've still never seen Wild Things, and I have no real desire to ever see it, but I might have watched a few minutes before turning it off in embarrassment were it available for streaming. Fortunately (unfortunately?), Crackle had a bigger surprise in store for me: the movie my mouse hovered over was not Wild Things, but Wild Things 2. Yes, they made a sequel. I almost fell off my chair. Crackle was not quite done, though. Looking at the very next movie in its list, I discovered that Wild Things 2 has a sequel: Wild Things: Diamonds in the Rough (full disclosure: I looked up Wild Things on Wikipedia [I couldn't actually remember in which year it came out] and discovered there is a fourth Wild Things movie, Wild Things: Foursome [I guess at this point they figured why even have the pretense of being anything other than softcore porn]).

The fact that Wild Things has a sequel (let alone three of them!) is, for me, the most shocking movie-related moment I've experienced since watching Ralph Bakshi's American Pop (another movie I have a long, strange history with) and realizing it was trying to tell me that the history of American popular music reached its apex with Bob Seger's "Night Moves." For your pleasure, allow me to reproduce (with minimal commentary) the capsule summaries Crackle provides for Wild Things 2 and Wild Things: Diamonds in the Rough (sadly, the first movie in the series is not available--this seems to be a theme on the site with erotic thrillers: Basic Instinct 2 is present, but not Basic Instinct):

Wild Things 2, starring Susan Ward, Isaiah Washington, and Joe Michael Burke; directed by Jack Perez [Ed. note: and I'm sure that went on the form Christmas letter that year]
"Teenage girls Maya and Brittney [Ed. note: the two 't's add that extra bit of trashiness you want in the main character of your movie] go on a sex and killing spree to win millions."

Wild Things: Diamonds in the Rough, starring Sarah Laine, Sandra McCoy, Linden Ashby, Ron Melendez, Claire Coffee, Michael Mantell, and Dina Myer; directed by Jay Lowi [Ed. note: I'm sure this is the first (only?) line on his resume]**
"Bad girls just want to have fun. Continued steamy antics and erotic Florida locals." [Ed. note: "erotic Florida locals" is a phrase that inspires untold amounts of dread and terror in me]

So there you have it: Wild Things, a movie I've not thought about in years (had anyone?) has two (hang on, three!) sequels. This little interlude added a welcome touch of surreality to what had been a mostly unremarkable day. I hope it can offer you the same.

*For those of you unfamiliar with this cinematic milestone, it is an "erotic thriller" that came out in 1998 and stars Matt Dillon, Neve Campbell (as I recall it, the primary draw in my eyes), Denise Richards, and Kevin Bacon (Wikipedia also mentions Bill Murray [!! or, rather, ?! I don't know if I want to see Bill Murray in anything "erotic]). From that same Wikipedia article: "The movie gained notoriety for featuring several sex scenes - in particular, one involving a man and two women simultaneously - that were more explicit than is typically seen in mainstream, big-budget Hollywood movies."

Tuesday, August 9, 2011


Well, summer is officially over for me. I am back in Pittsburgh, writing this from the desk of my new apartment. When I stare out my window, I no longer see student slums. That has to count for something. There are many things to do in the two weeks between now and the first day of classes (like finally getting around to writing that syllabus . . .), but I should hopefully have enough time on my hands to resume blogging with whatever approaches regularity for me on this thing. I've been working on the long promised post about chillwave (thesis [essentially]: chillwave is a specifically North American form of hauntology) and I hope to have it up (famous last words) by tomorrow evening. After that, I'll try and tackle my impressions of DFW's The Pale King--it really does seem to me to lend itself to a reading via capitalist realism--and some of his other later work.

Before I get to any of that, though, I've just finished re-reading Asimov's three Lije Baley/R. Daneel Olivaw novels (The Caves of Steel, The Naked Sun, and The Robots of Dawn). When I was younger, I loved all three, but I have to admit I didn't find them as enjoyable this time around (it's been probably five years at least since I'd even glanced at them). While I was impressed with the resonances between some of Asimov's sociological and psychological commentary and current social and political situations--particularly in the two earlier novels--what left me cold were the glimpses of the much stranger novels that got left behind in their adherence to fairly conventional mystery/adventure templates. In some ways, the humaniform robot R. Daneel Olivaw invites speculation on the nature of the human vs. the simulation, the authentic vs. the simulacrum from the first: he is introduced to the reader as a human, and is under orders to maintain his disguise as a human at all times (a deception he achieves much more successfully in the second novel, but which is rendered impossible in the third). Asimov is too clever to dispense entirely with speculation on the above themes, but he avoids lengthy digressions on the subject, preferring the issues to remain in the background (and to arise mostly as secondary or tertiary subtexts to other conversations or internal monologues by Baley). Indeed, Daneel becomes increasingly "human"--or is thought of as such by Baley--throughout the series, to the point where he is able to smile in the third novel (something he is unable to do successfully in the first). Whereas this would seem to be the point at which to push the distinction between the authentically human and the imitative robot to its extreme or to dissolve it entirely, Asimov does neither.

This is, ultimately, where the weirder novels that lurk just beneath the surface of the trilogy start to appear. Not overtly, but rather as the ghosts of what other writers might have done with this material, particularly Asimov's doppelganger in terms of hyperprolific American science fiction writers with an extraordinarily large influence over the field: Philip K. Dick. The Caves of Steel could become, with some minor tweaking, a dry run for Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep? What happens instead is that at the very point where Dick's novels and stories break into epistemological and existential chaos, at the point where the human and the real become impossible to locate or verify, Asimov's novel closes the door to that chaos through the relentless logic of Baley the plainclothesman. Where in Dick's hands Daneel would grow steadily more unnerving as he became increasingly human--and where Baley's shifting attitude toward Daneel (from fear and loathing to love and respect) would be matched by an increasing uneasiness towards Baley's own humanity--Asimov's Baley is already so machine-like, so rooted to cause and effect, to chains of logic, that he can point to Daneel's artificial nature and discuss that nature with the robot without ever really making the question of the human/robot distinction a live one. Baley's physical shortcomings (his agoraphobia, for example, or his need to eat, to defecate, etc.), what would on the surface seem to point to his very humanity, become affectations on par with Daneel's in the robot's attempt to be taken as human. The many references to Baley's long, glum face, a face that only rarely smiles, seem like deliberate echoes of Daneel's own grave visage and Baley's revulsion at the lifeless smile he commands Daneel to display for him in The Caves of Steel.

The two become mirrors of each other, but where Daneel's resemblance to/echo of everything that should distinguish Baley as the human in the pair should unnerve, should awaken exactly that primal fear Freud mentions in "The Uncanny," it fails to do so precisely because he has no one who appears to fulfill the criteria of the "human." This, ultimately, is the disturbing part of the series, and it is in some ways more deeply unsettling than Dick's questioning of the human. Where Dick worked hard to locate the "authentic" human gesture--"The concept of caritas (or agape) shows up in my writing as the key to the authentic human. The android, which is the unauthentic human, the mere reflex machine, is unable to experience empathy"--Asimov works with a similar basic assumption (the reflex in this case being a robot's unfailing response to the First Law of Robotics), but then undercuts them (the search for the Laws of Humanics) with a desire to make the human more like the robot, like Lije Baley, who is identified at the end of the third novel as the template for the "ideal" human to colonize the galaxy.